The Season of Reading Books We Want to Read: Summer Books for 2019

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
July 8, 2019

Summers come and summers go. Why are summers so memorable? Perhaps the reason comes down to the fact that summer brings an invitation to actually do some things we have wanted to do all along, but were prevented by time or weather. When it comes to reading, summer is an invitation to read at greater leisure, and perhaps even to read a book that we actually do not need to read, but just want to read.

This is my annual list of books to consider in this category. As by custom, the list consists of books concentrated in history and biography. Fiction would make for another good list . . . but that would be yet another list. I hope you enjoy this one.


  1. Douglas Brinkley, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race (Harper). 

In the summer of my tenth year, my cousins and I stretched out aluminum foil in a thin ribbon attached to the rabbit ears on the black and white television in order to pull in the most amazing images we had ever seen. We saw Neil Armstrong set his boot on the surface of the moon. That was now a half-century ago.

The fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11’s world-changing mission comes as a bittersweet reminder of a great age of exploration that is now only a memory. For me, growing up as a boy in Florida at the time, both the Cold War and the Great Space Race were ever present. Rocket launches, manned and unmanned, announced and secret, were facts of life. We would often drive by Cape Canaveral just to see what we could see, which was often nothing. But we knew that big things were going on, and the biggest was the race to the moon.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle landed on the moon, shortly thereafter Astronaut Neil Armstrong would become the first human to set foot on the moon. We have seen nothing like it since.

That it happened and how it happened is an amazing story, and a narrative essential to understanding the world in the 1960s and today. Douglas Brinkley tells the story well in American Moonshot. Read it, and then go take a good look into the night sky.


“It is both brazen and disingenuous for a U.S. president to say that a mission cannot fail. As Kennedy knew all too well, space launches certainly could fail. Out at the White Sands Proving Ground, rockets scuttling around the pad and then blowing up were commonplace. From 1957 to 1961, for every rocket launch success at Cape Canaveral , there had been two disasters, The Mercury Seven themselves, on hand to witness the first test of the Atlas rocket that would eventually lift one of them to orbit, watched as it exploded just after liftoff, prompting Shepard to remark, “Well, I’m glad they got that out of the way.” There were plenty of pragmatic reasons for Kennedy not to embrace the risky and expensive moonshot, but the odds were just close enough to push him toward go.”

2. Alex Kershaw, The First Wave: The D-D Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II (Caliber).

Just weeks ago, the world witnessed as some of the last living veterans of the D-Day invasion commemorated the largest amphibious military movement in history, and the crucial turning point in the history of mankind’s bloodiest war. The veterans were expected to be the last ever to attend the commemorations at Normandy, since the youngest are well into their 90s. This fact just makes the understanding of D-Day even more important in the present, for the future.

The D-Day invasion looms so large in history and in memory that every year brings a small library of new books devoted to its understanding. The 75th anniversary of D-Day has actually elicited fewer titles than expected, raising the question of continued historical interest in World War II. I recommend Alex Kershaw’s The First Wave. Kershaw is a talented writer accustomed to telling big historical stories. His book is not the largest to be written, but that very fact makes it more accessible. He tells the story freshly and the book is well-paced.


Marshaling the greatest invasion in the history of war had been, at times, as terrifying as the very real prospect of failure. The last time there has been a successful cross-Channel attack was 1066, almost a millennium ago. The scale of this operation has been almost too much to grasp. More than 700,000 separate items had formed the inventory of what was required to launch the assault. Dismissed by some British officers as merely ‘a coordinator, a good mixer,’ the blue-eyed Eisenhower, celebrated for his broad grin and easy charm, had nevertheless imposed his will, working eighteen-hour days, reviewing and tweaking plans to launch some 7,000 vessels, twelve thousand planes, and 160,000 troops to hostile shores.”


3. Barry Strauss, Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine (Simon & Schuster).

In one sense, the history of Rome is long–very long. But the history of the Roman Empire under the Caesars is much shorter, and the rulers of Rome have long attracted intense historical and biographical interest. Comprehensive histories of Rome have their place, but Barry Strauss tells the story of Rome at its height through lives of ten Roman rulers. He begins with Augustus and concludes with Constantine. The ten chapters are fascinating because the rulers were fascinating. They were virtuous, brilliant, devious, dense, perverse, murderous, incestuous, militant, idolatrous, megalomaniacal, and just about everything else imaginable. They could only have arisen in Rome and Rome would not have been Rome without them. They, too, are part of our story in the West, and Strauss offers us the best introduction to the caesars that has appeared in a very long time.


Tiberius was a transformational leader but not a charismatic one. How ironic it is, then, that the greatest revolution in Western history began during his reign: the mission of Jesus Christ. After preaching the Gospel in Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem circa the year 30. His followers hailed him as the Messiah–the Greek, the ‘Christ.’ they believed in his resurrection and came to see his mission as the start of a new religion, Christianity. Tiberius knew nothing of this, of course, as he sat in the Villa of Jupiter on faraway Capreae.”


4. Simon Jenkins, A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin (PublicAffairs)

A short history of Europe? Is this possible? Will anyone read it? The answer is provided by Simon Jenkins, who has produced the short history of Europe that deserves a place on your own reading list. Jenkins reminds us that history is not just a matter of knowing what to remember, but also of knowing what to forget. He tells what should be remembered with a narrative ability that is rare and with a keen eye that sees the individual pieces essential to the big picture. This is one of those books that will surprise the reader. The title sounds like a college textbook, but it reads like a best-selling novel. So read it.


As the twentieth century dawned, Europe held half the world’s population under its sway and controlled eighty-five percent of world trade. London’s six and a half million people made it by far the largest city on Earth. No other continent or group of peoples had ever claimed such mastery over the planet. This supremacy gave rise to a sense that Europeans were a superior race, with a right–and perhaps a duty–to conquer others, to rule them and convert them to Christianity. This power represented a Europe that had reached an evolutionary climax, and was tempted to define the word civilization in its own terms. It was the moment when it flew too close to the sun.”


5. Jared Cohen, Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America (Simon & Schuster).

“His Accidency.” That was the appellation President John Tyler had to bear. The tenth president of the United States came to the presidency when William Henry Harrison, the nation’s ninth president, died after only a month in office. Tyler thus became the first to hold the nation’s highest office without being elected to it, but he would not be the last. Constitutional questions loomed large when President Harrison died, but his Vice President, Tyler, claimed the office and a constitutional mandate. To date, this has happened eight times in the nation’s history.

As Cohen argues, some of these “accidental presidents” have been quite successful, while others have been disastrous. The eight men are John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. All eight of those names prompt and argument, and that is what makes Accidental Presidents such an enjoyable read.


Today we live in a world in which every moment is accounted for. But on September 14, 1901, the sense of urgency was treated differently. For three hours and seven minutes, [Theodore] Roosevelt was unaware that he was president. Arriving in Buffalo around 1:30 p.m., he was met by an elaborate Secret Service detail and Elihu Root, the senior cabinet member present in Buffalo, who oversaw Roosevelt’s impromptu inauguration . . . . Roosevelt, understanding the gravity of the moment, gave a polite bow, cleared his throat, and said, ‘I shall take the oath at once’ . . . . ‘And in this hour of deep and terrible national bereavement I wish to state that it shall be my aim to continue absolutely unbroken the policy of President McKinley for the peace, the prosperity, and the honor of our beloved country.’ If one counts this as an inaugural address, it was the shortest in history.”


6. Tom Cotton, Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery (William Morrow).

Senator Tom Cotton [R-Arkansas] has written a remarkable, timely, and deeply moving book. After graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Cotton did the unexpected — he joined the Army. And he did not join the Army as a lawyer, but an an infantry officer. He would serve in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division and in Afghanistan with the Provincial Reconstruction Team. But this book emerges from what Cotton did between those two tours. He served with the United States Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, known affectionately as “The Old Guard.” The Old Guard stands guard for the nation and its honor at Arlington National Cemetery.

Cotton tells the story of The Old Guard, the Army’s oldest active-duty regiment, serving since 1784. Sacred Duty is an amazing book, deeply moving and richly informative. Readers are taken into the private world of the nation’s most public burial ground for soldiers. It is a story of dedication, sacrifice, honor, and national commitment. No reader of this book will ever pass a national cemetery or hear the sounds of Taps played on a bugle the same way again. The fact that this author of this book now serves as a United States Senator adds even more meaning to the book and to the experience of reading it.


What remains is The Old Guard’s sacred duty at Arlington. For the fallen and their families, The Old Guard honors their service and sacrifice. For us, the living, The Old Guard embodies our respect, our gratitude, our love for those who have borne the battles of a great nation–and those who will bear the burdens of tomorrow. No one summed up better what The Old Guard of Arlington means for our nation than did Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey. He recalled a moment with a foreign military leader while driving through the cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “I was explaining what The Old Guard does and he was looking out the window at all those headstones. After a long pause, still looking at the headstones, he said, ‘Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard. You take better care of your dead than we do our living.‘”


7. Rick Atkinson, The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 (Henry Holt).

Rick Atkinson, known for his “Liberation Trilogy” documenting the twists and turns of World War II, has launched yet another massive trilogy. This time it is the “Revolution Trilogy” covering the world-changing events of the American Revolution. In time, this second trilogy may be even more important than the first, because the American Revolution has been neglected among many historians for decades now.

In The British Are Coming, we now have the first volume of the trilogy in hand, and it is a monumental read. Atkinson rightly begins the year before the Declaration of Independence, and he traces the uneven and perhaps unexpected road to revolution. Readers of the “Liberation Trilogy” will recognize Atkinson’s attention to military history, but he is also able to tell the story in a much larger frame. Readers will also appreciate Atkinson’s instinct for biography, with characters both large and small in historical weight. The best comment I can make about The British Are Coming is that readers of this volume will be eagerly awaiting the next two books in the trilogy. They can’t come soon enough.


The cause was hardly won. Independence had been proclaimed, not secured. The bloodletting has just begun. ‘It may be the will of heaven that Americans shall suffer calamities still more wasting and disasters yet more dreadful,’ John Adams had predicted the previous July. The distress of civil war unleashed by the rebellion would grow only more searing. ‘Neighbor was against neighbor, father against son and the son against the father,’ a Connecticut loyalist wrote in 1777, ‘and he that would not thrust his own blade through his brother’s heart was called an infamous felon.’ As the New York patriot Gouverneur Morris wrote to his mother, a loyalist, ‘Great revolutions of empire are seldom achieved without much human calamity.‘”


8. Brian Lamb, Susan Swan, and C-SPAN, The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best — and Worst — Chief Executives (PublicAffairs).

History is an argument, and no argument seems to interest Americans more than an argument over the rankings of American presidents. In that light, this book is a feast. Forty-three presidents are rated, including every president from George Washington to Barak Obama. Sponsored by C-SPAN, a team of historians ranked the presidents according to the criteria of “personal persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/setting an agenda, pursued equal justice for all, and performance within the context of the times.”

In other words, they employed largely subjective criteria. This is the predicament of any rating method when it comes to presidential leadership. Every president is an argument, and the arguments change over time (just think of the rise of Dwight D. Eisenhower in recent from dunce to genius, according to many historians). But this predicament just makes reading a book like this the more exhilarating. The chapter on each president is written by a historian, which means that the reader is engaged in a double debate in every chapter–a debate with the president and a debate with the historian. And the historians, including Robert Caro, Douglas Brinkley, Ron Chernow, David Garrow, Gordon S. Wood, and Richard Norton Smith, among others, are worthy contributors. Many of the chapters are based upon appearances on C-SPAN. Read each chapter, and join the argument.


Robert Caro on Lyndon Baines Johnson, “Power always reveals what you wanted to do all along. The cliche is Lord Acton’s statement: ‘All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ I don’t think that’s always true. I think that what’s always true is that power reveals, because when you have enough power to do whatever you want to do, then people see what you wanted to do. This is particularly true in the case of Lyndon Johnson.”


9. Roy Strong, The Story of Britain: A  History of the Great Ages, from the Romans to the Present, (Pegasus).

Sir Roy Strong, former director of London’s National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, is also the author of a host of books worthy of reading, The Story of Britain now joins them. In my view, it is the most readable single-volume history of Britain to emerge in many years. This book is actually an update of Strong’s earlier work, but that adds strength to the volume. This book is the way you would want a historian to talk to you about the history of Britain. Once again, this story of Britain is necessarily a part of the American story.


Such a powerful threat called for and equal fervor of purpose on the English side. The queen, a superb actress, was presented to her people as the chosen vessel of God, a virgin–for by now it was clear that she would never marry–sacred and set aside to lead the Protestant cause, not only on the part of England, but of Europe. By the 1580s the anniversary of her accession to the throne, 17 November, had become a national holiday in which court and country joined in celebrating what was seen as years progressed as a God-ordained deliverance from the joint yoke of Spain and the Pope. The splendor of the monarchy and the magnificence of the queen replaced the spectacle of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church and provided a new potent focus of loyalty. When in 1588 the great Armada finally sailed, much of the future destiny of Europe was seen to be embodied in the confrontation.”


10. Dan Pedersen, Top Gun: An American Story (Hachette Books).

This book is included because it is a story worth telling about a special pilot training program for the Navy that was more thrilling to the public than to the Navy top brass. The public’s introduction to the program came in the form of the 1986 movie, Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis (though Don Pedersen would argue that the real star of the movie was the legendary F-14 Tomcat fighter). The truth about the program, officially “Topgun” in Navy terminology, is that it emerged from the fact that military strategists had been wrong about the age of the jet fighter. They had assumed that supersonic fighter jets would not engage in dogfights, and thus the planes did not need guns. Korean and Vietnam would prove this theory wrong. At the same time, both military conflicts revealed deficiencies in pilot training for air to air combat. Thus was born Topgun. Hollywood would change the name to Top Gun, presumably because two words make for a better movie title.

Don Pedersen, author of Top Gun, joined the Navy in 1953 and was the senior pilot among the 9 who formed the first Topgun group in 1969, based at Naval Air Station Miramar in California. He would later retire from the Navy at the rank of Captain, having commanded an aircraft carrier. The book will be of most interest to readers who combine a love for history with an interest in military affairs — and supersonic jets in particular. One very interesting twist in the tale was the audience for the movie as intended by the Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, who assured the producers of Navy cooperation. Secretary Lehman wanted the Soviet leadership to see the movie, and recognize the bravado of the American Navy pilots. Ironically, both Topgun and Top Gun played a role in the Cold War.


The way to true mastery of anything is to learn it to the point that you can teach it to someone else. My first task, then, was to find instructors with a talent for teaching, pilots with the gift for delivering a complex lesson in a way that made it stick. Our expectations were sky-high. Not just of our students, but of ourselves. With only sixty days to develop new offensive dogfighting tactics for the Phantom, redefine the way Sparrows and Sidewinders were used, write the curriculum and lesson plans, create a flight syllabus with briefing and debriefing guides, and recruit our first class of pilots from the fleet, there was hardly an hour to waste.

Summer won’t last, but reading goes on, season by season. May your summer season be a good reading season, but in any case keep reading.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).